Once they were under way, Robert was finally able to relax. There’s a certain serenity in having no options; surrounded by unbroken oceanic horizons, there’s not really any way to change your mind and go back home. He and his brother had formed easy friendships of necessity with their roommates that wouldn’t last five minutes after they got off the boat, and Robert was surprised at the number of friends his brother seemed to have on board, or at least friends of friends. Everyone seemed cheerful and eager to reach their destination. (At least everyone in Second class. Robert wasn’t allowed to mingle with those in First class, and had no desire to mingle with the riffraff in Third.) There was even a whole family of Brodies on the ship, but they were from Aberdeen, closer to the original Brodie lands themselves than his Paisley hometown had been, and unrelated as far as they knew; still, it helped Robert to feel less lonely as the miles between him and his home stretched wider and wider.
He was gambling American pennies with a pair of boys whose mothers would probably cuff the whole lot of them if they were caught when he heard his brother’s voice calling for him through the crowd. In the middle of a hand, he ignored him, but the news reached him before James ever did. Land had been sighted. It seemed that everyone in the lounge was suddenly surging toward the staircase that would take them up to the decks. Robert scooped up his cards and coins off the table and hurried with them, only to get stuck in a traffic jam several yards back from the narrow portal that would lead him up on deck. Step after impatient step, he slowly made his way closer. He was just beginning to lose patience when he found himself at the stairwell. Once there, they were free to rush again. He hurried up with the others and soon emerged from the gloomy insides of the ship to the bright briny air.
Still being pushed forward by those coming out after him, it took him longer than usual to orient himself. The deck was packed, the jostling crowd charged with excitement. He looked up toward the prow of the ship; there seemed to be a lot of yelling, laughing and pointing from that direction and so he started picking his way through the crowd. Children stood on their parents’ shoulders, excitedly describing the view, and Robert wished he was a foot or two taller. It finally became so crowded that he couldn’t possibly move any further forward; the pressure was enough that he felt certain those at the front of the throng would surely be shoved right into the water. He waited for those up front to dissipate and give the rest of them a turn, but they didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving. Well, Robert could be stubborn, too. He resolved to just outwait them.
Unfortunately, everyone else seemed to have reached the same resolution. It would be a long wait before he ever got a glimpse of anything besides the back of someone’s head, and by there the view was much more exciting. Even from a distance, Robert didn’t think he’d ever seen anything more beautiful than the majestic and noble Lady Liberty.
This era marked the height of American immigration. Never before or after has the United States had a higher number of foreign-born citizens. Your Great-Great-Grandfather came over closer to the end of the boom, just a little while after the peak year of 1890. The process of getting onto American soil was very different than it is now. At the mouth of the Hudson River in the New York Harbor stands Ellis Island. For over fifty years, this is where most immigrants came through, including many in our family on both sides. When Robert and James Brodie came through, it was just fourteen years old. (In Europe, most everything is old. I imagine the facilities on Ellis Island were quite the sight.) The year in which Ellis Island processed the most immigrants was 1907, starting just about a month after the Brodie brothers came to America; well over a million people came through that year. Thousands of people from every land on earth came through those halls every day. I mention all these numbers so that you get an idea of how incredibly busy and utterly foreign the place must have seemed.
Robert and James were both a little wobbly off the boat. Neither had particularly suffered from seasickness and had found their sea legs easily, but coming back on land was a bit of an adjustment. I imagine they would have preferred a nap and a warm meal, but they were instead herded with the other Second class passengers toward the Ellis Island Immigration Station. They picked up their luggage and climbed a flight of stairs, several uniformed doctors watching them as they did so. A few people who had been sick were weeded out quickly, both on the stairs and during the six-second medical inspection they all met at the top of the flight. They were admitted into a large domed hall with a red floor and then the questioning began.
Twenty-nine questions each rained down on the exhausted immigrants. The brothers waited in a long line before it was their turn. Robert went through first. Although the process was quick and efficient, he still felt like hours had passed before the inquisition was over. Then he stood aside to wait while James submitted to the same process. Robert was distractedly watching the birds wheeling around outside the windows and only half listening to his brother and the American inspector.
“Married or single?”
James cleared his throat. “Um, single.”
He paused, his eyes still on the ship record against which he was checking answers. He glanced up, repeating, “Single?”
His face was blank. “Single.”
“On the passenger list, it says you are married.”
“Oh. We weren’t sure how to answer.”
“Not sure,” he repeated suspiciously.
Angered by the man’s stupidity, Robert interrupted with a hiss, “He’s widowed. The man checking us in didn’t think it was an option so he just marked him as married.”
“I see,” he said, making a note. “This happened recently?”
James nodded slowly.
“And how did the lady die?”
James didn’t say anything.
Robert answered for him. “Child labor.”
“I see. My condolences, sir. And the child?”
James muttered, “Never born.”
He looked down and repeated, “Again, my condolences.” His gaze landed once more on the ship record. “What is your final destination?”
New York was not the final destination. As they came across the last stretch of water on the ferry, James was once again all business in the preparations for the final leg of their journey as they set foot on the American mainland. They hardly had time to find the address to the cramped apartment they would be staying at and exchange greetings with James’ childhood friend before they retrieved their money from their bags and went out for supplies, the friend as their guide. They never really left the Scottish neighborhoods of New York, but they were still able to find all the things they would need, both for their journey and for their settling out west.
It was a busy day and James had nothing to say about the questions on Ellis Island, although Robert was sure he was still thinking about them. Robert was too exhausted to want to do any sight-seeing, but he was certainly impressed by the sheer size of the buildings, and of the city itself. The tall buildings made for an early sunset and they finished their purchases as dusk fell over the city. They had an early supper back at the apartment, hearty fare that reminded them of home. If not for the strange, modern architecture, they might have still been in Scotland, visiting a friend.
They made their beds on the floor of the kitchen; their combined breadth spanning the width of the tiny room. The thin walls masked nothing; they could hear the nervous pacing of the upstairs tenant, and the persistent cough of a neighbor child.
Robert stared up at the ceiling through the darkness. After a long while, he whispered, “I’m sorry about today. At the Immigration Station.”
He didn’t say anything.
Robert asked gently, “Do you miss her?”
There was a long pause, so long that Robert was beginning to think James had already fallen asleep. Finally, he answered softly, “Every day, Robert. Now go to sleep.”
Robert hated parting with money. (I’m the same way. I have this bizarre tendency to think of lumps of money in terms of how much food they could buy me. It helps me keep purchasing priorities in order.) Perhaps he’d been a little too poor as a child to enjoy shopping like some people do, but even he had to admit that the things they bought were exciting. The crowning purchase of the week was his and James’ two one-way tickets for the Overland Route, or what would become known as the First Transcontinental Railroad.
At sixty-five dollars each, the tickets were beastly expensive and Robert wasn’t initially impressed by the concept of a railroad that spanned the country; after all, they had those in Scotland, too, didn’t they? He was probably a little more impressed when James’ friend took them to a library and showed them just how much bigger America was than Scotland, and how much of it was still uninhabited. Of course, they would have to take a few shorter rails to get to some place called Omaha, Nebraska before they could get onto the Transcontinental Railroad itself, but still, well over a thousand miles of uninterrupted rail was nothing to scoff at. He was further impressed when informed that the trip from Nebraska to California would take a little over one week, nearly as long as crossing the Atlantic Ocean had taken.
When they got back from the library, there was a letter waiting for Robert from Tillie. He was a little embarrassed and read it silently to himself before selectively reading only certain parts for the family of Scots eager for news from the homeland. Everyone was entertained by the rants in the margins about the cost of postage and how far away America must be if they truly intended to charge that much to send a single sheet of paper there.
As he had promised, he found a sheet of paper and scratched out a response. He wrote about their trip across the ocean and about the crowded circus that was the immigrant processing station. He wrote about New York and how tall and new the buildings were, and about the upcoming final leg of their journey. He realized with a touch of surprise that he had filled both sides of the paper. A little sheepish, he had to go ask for another. He was careful to leave one of the sides blank. Then he folded, glued and addressed the letter, and went to sleep.
The next day, one of the children showed him where he could buy postage (Tillie was right: it was expensive.) and send away the letter. He dropped it in the box, then turned and stared up and down the wide paved streets, loud, busy, dirty. So this was America.
Note: Further research makes it seem unlikely that Robert and James passed through Ellis Island on their way to America. Typically, First and Second class passengers were processed on ship in the harbor, as they were less likely to be as financially, politically or medically problematic as the Third class passengers, who were dropped off at the Island. Furthermore, Ellis Island records show Robert and Tillie in 1922, but not Robert and James in 1906.
On another note, the railroad systems controlled California state politics and, as San Francisco was the most important city in the state at the time, offered reduced rail rates to skilled artisans. Although it is possible that James and Robert came across on a reduced rate, I don’t know what the rate was or whether they were given it, so I just played it safe and had them paying full price.
Records: SS Furnessia Ship Manifest 1906, SS Elysia Ship Manifest 1922, The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. online search engine